Having gained a useful point at Fleetwood on Saturday, United travelled back to the North West on Tuesday evening to face Altrincham in what was always going to be one of the key fixtures in the second half of the season. The team that had been on duty at Highbury on Saturday were pencilled in to start this “six-pointer”, but during the warm-up, goalkeeper Lee Harrison felt twinges of the injury problems that have punctuated his season, so Delroy Preddie made his second United debut facing the same Club against whom he’d ended his first spell. It was a prelude to one of those nights.
Preddie was called into action in the very first minute of the match. Mark Beesley set up Damien Reeves but his header low to Preddie’s right was comfortably dealt with by the returning United favourite. The home fans were shouting for a penalty just two minutes later, but referee Ford saw no problem in the challenge on Reeves. United‘s first chance of the match fell to Ben Wright on nine minutes. The home defence failed to clear and Wright created enough space for himself to put a shot in that sailed wide.
We did capitalise fully on further hesitation in the Altrincham defence a couple of minutes later. Stuart Coburn couldn’t hold Ben Wright’s shot, Bradley Pritchard was on hand to pick up the pieces and knock the ball back into the danger area, leaving Jefferson Louis the simplest of tap-in’s for his first goal in a United shirt. The home side looked for an equaliser straight from the restart, the lively Nicky Clee set up Shaun Densmore, but Adam Green was on hand to block his goalbound effort. Clee then fed Beesley on twenty minutes, but his shot was well wide. Pritchard was booked soon after for an accumulation of scrappy unnecessary fouls and there was an injury scare for United on the half hour when Adam Bygrave took a knock to the face, but he was able to return quickly, the only serious casualty being his blood stained blue United shirt.
The home side were beginning to dominate possession without creating anything worthwhile from it, and should have equalised on thirty-eight minutes. United failed to clear a Densmore free-kick, and the ball was knocked down to an unmarked Damian Reeves who fired over from four yards when he really had enough time to take an extra touch and pick his spot. Pritchard had a lobbed effort comfortably gathered by Coburn three minutes before the break, but in truth United had failed to create anything worthwhile since going in front.
We were made to pay for our lethargy in first half stoppage time. Charlie Wassmer competently shepherded the ball away from Reeves for a corner, but the United team failed to mark up properly, and Preddie’s punch fell to the oncoming Sam Wedgbury who fired in to make it 1-1 at the break. Alarmed by how his players had switched off, Garry Haylock had the team out a few minutes before the restart putting the players through a series of sprints and turns in an attempt to snap some sharpness back into the team, but he would have been better off enjoying a second cup of tea in the warm for all the response he got.
Jamie Hand did manage to feed Wright in the opening minutes of the second half, but his shot was high and wide, but the key turning point of the game came seven minutes after the restart. Despite clearly winning the ball from Densmore, Pritchard was penalised, giving Altrincham a free-kick some thirty-five yards out. The United wall was lined up soundly enough, but Clee’s fierce free kick clipped Phil Appiah on the left shoulder, sending the ball into the unguarded corner which Preddie had no chance of reaching to give the home side the lead.
Wassmer did try to lead some of his more senior colleagues back into the game. On the hour, he picked up the ball on the left just inside the Altrincham half before the bringing the ball on and having a shot which Coburn parried, but Wright couldn’t do anything with the rebound. United’s chances of getting back into the game were dealt a severe blow eight minutes later. Beesley threatened to break through the flat-footed United defence, and he was pulled back by Tom Cadmore on the edge of the box, leaving referee Ford with very little option other than to send the skipper in for an early bath. It was effectively game over four minutes later. Again the United defence was static waiting for a linesman’s flag which didn’t come, and Reeves had plenty of time to fire past Preddie to make it 3-1.
The misery was compounded with eleven minutes to go. Wassmer’s attempt at a clearance was too weak and went straight to Reeves. He found veteran Michael Twiss who came on midway through the second half, and he tucked a low shot inside Preddie’s right hand post to give Altrincham a 4-1 lead. Preddie stopped further embarrassment for his team-mates a couple of minutes later. Clee’s low cross was met by substitute Steve Foster, but Delroy saved with his feet to prevent a fifth goal for the home side. Clee’s continued determination saw him in the action again on eighty-five minutes, but thankfully the United goalkeeper was in equally detemined mood and saved bravely as Clee came in.
As five minutes of injury time began, United brought a modicum of respectability to the scoreline, but again it was another scrappy goal. Substitute Daniel Wishart’s effort was spilled by Coburn, and Pritchard was on hand to bundle to ball in and bring the final score back to 4-2.
Manager Garry Haylock reflected on an embarrassing display after the game. “it wasn’t the intention to send the team out to play with that lack of spirit and fight. I’ve praised them very highly when we’ve been beaten in certain games and not got what we’ve deserved, but to be honest tonight we got more than we deserved as I don’t think we deserved the two goals. At 4-1 down with ten men we suddenly decided that we wanted to be aggressive and pass the ball, and we were great for the last fifteen minutes, but it was about an hour too late. I find it difficult after games because if I start ranting and raving I won’t stop – on that performance, and on the last three or four performances we’re not good enough, and if I could change eight or nine players and get eight or nine in, I’d do it, but at the moment this is what I have to work with, and we’ll be in on Thursday morning working hard.”
Explaining the late change of goalkeeper, Haylock went on “Lee Harrison started to feel it [the injury] in the warm-up, and it was a very similar situation to Forest Green earlier on in the season. He could have got through it, but given that we’d been down that road before and it had cost us a couple of goals, I just felt I’d be happier with Delroy in goal. If I’d only had a youngster on the bench I probably wouldn’t have done it. It was touch and go, and because of the injuries Lee’s had it was better to be cautious but he should be available on Saturday. Delroy’s come in, but it was unfortunate for him that it was a shocking performance by the team in front of him. There were one or two players out there who I felt sorry for, and Delroy was one of them.”
Reflecting on how Altrincham took control in the second half Haylock added “I told them that we wouldn’t have deserved to go in one up at half-time. We wanted a positive start in the first fifteen minutes after the break. They’d conceded over 50% of their goals in the last half hour, and I felt that if it was 1-1 with twenty-five minutes to go we would have gone on and won it. But you can’t make the mistakes we’ve made like cheap free-kicks. They got a deflected goal from one, got a bit of momentum, the whole context of the game changes, and we just didn’t step up to it. We had a training session on Monday morning which went superbly, we passed the ball well, it was sharp, bright, in a tight area, everyone wanted the ball, but it was as if somebody replaced the players at the services on the way up here. I can’t put my finger on it, the biggest message to the players today was “no fear”, we go and pass the ball, and if we get beaten, we get beaten trying to pass the ball and create something, but we got beaten weakly and timidly with no aggression and as has been said in there, with no balls. If that’s the way we’re prepared to play, we’ll be relegated by the end of March….but I won’t accept it”.
There were no complaints on Tom Cadmore’s red card. “He’s pulled him back. He was ball watching and the forward’s gone the other side of him. He’s made a mistake and got punished for it”.
It may well be that the true significance of this defeat won’t be apparent until the final table is made up on April 30th, but the travelling faithful who were at Moss Lane on Tuesday evening know that there has to be a major improvement on performances like this one if we are to enjoy a third season dining at non-league football’s top table.
Report by Lee Hermitage.
United Man of the Match: The Travelling United Supporters.